Friday, March 22, 2013

Punc--EEK Part 4-Quotes within quotes

Quotes within quotes. *Evil laughter* No, seriously, this isn't so bad. You've already mastered the basics of punctuating dialogue and splitting it in several different ways. What do you have to worry about?

First, what is a quote within a quote? At its most basic, it's a character citing what someone else said.
Like this:
John said,"Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you' yesterday."  Notice John's dialogue is punctuated normally, and Billy's dialogue within John's uses single quotes. That's it. The fun starts with more complicated sentences.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you,' so I'm not going to school today."  In this sentence, Billy's quote is followed by a comma (inside the single quote) because of the ensuing dependent clause (so I'm not going to school today.) Make sense so far? Let's ramp up the fun.

John said, "Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!' so I'm not going to school today."  See the exclamation point? Notice there is no comma? Very good. If Billy's quote ended with a question mark in this sentence there would be no comma there, either.

I know you're all dying to hear about the weird punc I mentioned in last week's post. Such weirdness usually occurs at the ends of sentences.

John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you.'"  Aha. Look at that weird '" at the end. Three apostrophes? No. It's a single quote ' to end Billy's dialogue, followed by a double quote " to end John's dialogue.

Suppose you want to inject some excitement. John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you!'"  Punctuated like this, the sentence indicates that Billy is excited. Why? Because the exclamation point is inside Billy's dialogue. Suppose Billy doesn't care, but John does. You'd punc it like this: John said, "I'm not going to school today because Billy told me, 'Sue is going to get you'!"  I know, I know. That looks weird. Please don't cry. Remember my basic rule: Punctuate the dialogue. Decide which of your speakers needs the exclamation point, and put it in his speech.

Here's a variant with a question mark in it: Mom said, "You're not going to school because Billy told you,'Sue is going to get you'?"  You could replace the question mark with an exclamation point, but you can't use both. Sorry, but you can't.

In general, exclamation points and question marks stay with the dialogue they belong to, while commas and periods go inside the quote marks. As we saw in the preceding paragraphs, there may sometimes be flexibility. When that happens, the writer gets to make the decision based on where the emphasis needs to be.

One more example, then I'll let your tired minds rest. Who wrote, "All the world's a stage"? The question mark does not belong to the quotation, so it goes outside the quote marks. But: Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage." 

I know you'll find plenty of variations and have tons of questions. Keep remembering to punctuate the dialogue, and you'll get through most situations. If you're still puzzled, consult Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Ask your editor, or ask me (and I'll run straight to CMOS or EOS)!

Next time, we'll start on commas.


  1. Hi, Nikki,

    Having taught middle school and high school English for many years, I do value punctuation and proper grammar. It's good to see a column devoted to these essentials for writers.

    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE TRUTH SLEUTH--now available in paperback from Harlequin Worldwide Mystery

    1. Jacqueline, I learned grammar and punc under the tutelage of Sister MaryMary's ruler. You can't build a house without a proper frame, and you can't make a story without the right building blocks. Besides, if you don't know the rules you can't break 'em.

  2. I'm so happy you're my editor extraordinaire! I doubt that I'll ever get the last part correct. "'!"" Really!! R

    1. You're doing fine, Rita. Take it slowly and use CMOS.

  3. Replies
    1. This one did get into the esoterica a bit. I think it's fun.